Day 3 (Mathematica and more…)

Today, Nick and I kicked off the day with a brief presentation on Mathematica. At least, we had intended for it to brief, but the good questions from the audience and our enthusiasm led to the presentation running until 11 o’clock. We started off with a general discussion on the role of technology in the math classroom (as this was the first time that solely the math teachers had gathered together in one room). This discussion was engaging, and I would like to find time tomorrow or on Friday to have a similar opportunity to hear the thoughts of the math teachers here. After this opening, we briefly touched upon Wolfram Alpha, Mathematica, and the Computable Document Format (CDF) player, which is a tool that serves to make the power of Mathematica available to those without a site license. 


After this, we let the group loose and encouraged our peers to find potential applications of Mathematica for their classes. Mike was able to successfully export a CDF file, and Dick explored the use of Taylor Series for polynomial expansion. Jason was also able to create some cool visualizations of randomly generated data. I am sure that others found similar success, but these are just examples of some of the impressive progress made by the group over the course of the morning. 

I spent time trying to determine how to embed a CDF file into a WordPress blog, but determined that it could only be done within (not Panama did succeed in seamlessly incorporating a CDF file that she created into her Blackboard course. 

After lunch, Mike showed us Canvas- an alternative LMS. This software has potential for facilitating student work outside of the classroom. The potential for a course wherein the fundamentals are drilled in an online setting such as this is appealing. Nearly all of the teachers at the session agreed that this proposition is appealing; we would appreciate the freedom that such a tool would give us to further explore more challenging and applied concepts in the classroom, while the basics were left for mastery at home. 

In addition to this setting, I had a wonderful conversation with Matt, Mike, and Chris, in which we touched upon several inspiring topics. We all rued the prevalence of calculus in the secondary school math curriculum. 

In addition, we debated the merits of teaching “beautiful” math for the sake of beauty alone. How does the merit of such education compare to math that is more applied in nature? Personally, I feel as though we struggle too much to convince our students of the beauty of theoretical math. Though we, as teachers, find this entertaining, our students generally fail to do so. In my teaching, I have strived to make the math as applicable as possible. Tying the concepts in our textbooks to situations that are found outside of an academic setting seems to be the best way to engage our students, I feel.

Also, we talked about the level of difficulty in our courses. Too often, I feel, we feed our students answers to hard problems, and demand too little of them. I spoke of the robotics class that I helped co-teach this spring. The other, more senior teacher inspired me in his reluctance to provide easy answers. Often, students would ask questions that he was sure that they could answer on their own. Thus, he would refuse to answer students’ questions, at times! This potentially inflammatory approach runs its risks, but the learning that I saw borne as a result of his “negligence” was unlike anything I have seen in any other secondary school setting.

This experience has inspired me to more often challenge my students, and less frequently provide them with every answer that they need. We espouse that we must teach our students to teach themselves, but in an effort to validate our own self worth as teachers, we rarely practice what we preach. The integration of technology into our lives is making it easier for students to find answers, and, as time passes, the ratio of knowledge possessed by the teacher to knowledge available online continues to shrink at a rapid pace. Next year, though it may be an unpopular strategy, I will continue to do my best to resist the urge to “spoon feed” the students, and will instead push them to become more independent in their thinking. 

Tomorrow is our last full day. I hope to make some headway in preparation of my statistics class. Next year, I hope to teach this class in a new, non-linear, application-based way. From the outset, we will discuss polling and surveying and then use inherent student interest in these topics to drive our exploration of statistics throughout the term. This is my hope, at least. But such a reorganization of the course will require work, and I plan to incorporate many of the tools introduced this week. Wish me luck! 


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